Under leaden skies, with lightning, thunder and rain in St Peter's Square on the evening of 28 June 2001, Archbishops George Pell and Denis Hart each received the Pallium from Pope John Paul II - along with 34 other archbishops from around the world.
Archbishop Hart was chosen, on behalf of all the archbishops, to recite the declaration of loyalty to the Holy Father. Although the Holy Father presided at the Mass, the principal celebrant was Cardinal Ratzinger, probably because of the Pope's tiredness after his recent visit to Ukraine, reports AD2000 publisher Peter Westmore, who was present at the ceremony.
Following Archbishop Pell's transfer from Melbourne to Sydney, it was widely anticipated that his successor in Melbourne would be auxiliary Bishop Denis Hart. This was confirmed with an announcement in Rome on 22 June.
Since his ordination to the priesthood in 1967, the Melbourne-born, 60-year- old Dr Hart has served as a hospital chaplain, assistant and parish priest in Melbourne parishes, Prefect of Ceremonies for the Archdiocese, Advocate and Notary of the Regional Matrimonial Tribunal and Executive Secretary of the National Liturgical Commission of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference (1975-1990). He was responsible for the preparation of official editions of books for worship and was Liturgy Director and Assistant Master of Ceremonies for the whole of the Australian Papal visit in November 1986. He has served in a host of other official capacities in the Archdiocese.
In 1997 he was named an auxiliary Bishop to the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Since 1998, he has been a member of the Bishops' Committee for the Laity and, since 2000, of the Committee for Liturgy.
The news of Dr Hart's appointment as Archbishop was welcomed by the many Melbourne Catholics who appreciated the energetic, reforming leadership of Archbishop Pell since 1996 and anticipated that, as his right-hand man over that period, Dr Hart would consolidate and extend the fruits of his predecessor's leadership.
In his media statement on 23 June, Archbishop Hart confirmed these expectations: "I will work hard to promote unity of faith in the Catholic tradition with Jesus Christ as its centre. I will work energetically to gather the Church in Melbourne around Pope John Paul II in the Universal Church ... I am truly proud of the Melbourne priests. I know them well and look forward to working with them to support the work of the Church in the new millennium ... Archbishop Pell has provided Melbourne with a strong focus on Jesus Christ, with clear teaching, gifted administration and availability to all. For all Melburnians I thank him for his vision and leadership."
Ray Cassin, a religion writer in the Melbourne Age - which had regularly criticised Archbishop Pell's "hardline" policies - commented, under the heading "Protege of Pell Catholic leader": "Like Dr Pell, he has strongly conservative views. In Melbourne, the appointment of Bishop Hart will almost certainly mean that the most controversial policy changes implemented by Dr Pell will remain in place."
In his first press conference, the new Archbishop made clear he would uphold the Church's doctrinal stances, e.g., on the ordination of women and homosexuality: "The Pope has stated definitively, after serious examination, that the Church is not able, is not competent to ordain women to the priesthood. That's a definitive teaching for now and always. I don't see that changing." And: "People who are active homosexually, when the Church teaches that sexual activity belongs to marriage between a man and a woman, means ... they exclude themselves from Holy Communion and therefore we are not free to give them Communion."
A report in the Melbourne Herald Sun cited the assessment of one of Dr Hart's clerical colleagues: "I think he and the Vatican understand that the Melbourne Church under George Pell gained a reputation for being assertive and both believe that momentum should continue ... He has, I think, a great sense of resolve ... He is one of the most courteous men you could meet. But people should not mistake that for any weakness. He is definitely a man with a mission."
In short, the appointment of Archbishop Hart, following the appointment of Dr Pell to Sydney, gives reason for optimism with regard to the Church in Australia. It means the Church leadership as a whole remains strongly committed to the program put forward by John Paul II as the Church's response to the challenge of a secular and materialist society. The Holy Father himself has recently reaffirmed the need for the Church to give witness to its alternative - the Gospel of Life, the Gospel of Hope - to a world which is losing respect for life, and sets its hopes on no future other than providing material satisfaction.
In Australia, the task of clarifying the Church's witness was spelt out in 1999 in the Statement of Conclusions, e.g., liturgy, sacraments, seminaries, priesthood, religious life, theology, Catholic schools and universities, and teacher education. Now, with Pallia given under grey skies, the sun begins to dawn on this task.